Some thoughts on being connected ( Tom Williams )

Posted by Barabal on Thursday, February 11. 2021 in Connection

Humans are, above all things, social animals.  They are not the only social animals, but human society ( and the word society is a clue ) depends crucially on many and subtle social interactions.  It's quite possible that the complexity of the human cerebral cortex evolved not to enable us to do higher mathematics and philosophical theorising, but mainly so that we can keep track of who owes us a favour and whose partner is messing around with whose best friend.

Generally we manage these social connections without even noticing.  They are so much a part of our world that we no more consciously negotiate our everyday social interactions than we consciously draw breath.  Some people ( and I am one of them ) think of themselves as not being particularly sociable.  You won’t see me down the pub; I seldom arrange to go out for a meal with friends.  I have often thought that I would be well suited to living cut off from most people outside my immediate family.

The past year has made me realise just how wrong I was.

Even the most anti-social person is defined socially.  A hermit is only a hermit if others know of and acknowledge their isolation.  Those Japanese soldiers who hid away from the world after 1945 ( some for decades ) were not hermits.  They were fugitives.  Fugitives do genuinely live outside of society and their situation is usually regarded as stressful and deeply unpleasant.  Hermits, by contrast, surround themselves with metaphorical signs reading ‘Do not disturb the hermit’ and then, I suspect, complain when ( as is more or less inevitable ) people turn up to visit their hermitages to see what all the fuss is about.

I am beginning to think of other human beings as rather like salt.  I don’t like salt.  I add hardly any to my cooking and, as a result, when I am served salty food I don’t particularly enjoy it.  Most people prefer more salt than me, but people who pour lots of salt on their food are a bit weird and it often makes them sick.  But even those who, like me, avoid salt will die if they don’t eat any of it.

So it is with people. ‘People who need people’, meaning, in the musical theatre world, happy, gregarious types ready to do the show right here, are actually a bit of a pain.  They are needy and often narcissistic and demanding to be around.  But we all need people a bit.

The UN defines solitary confinement as "the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact."  Solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days is regarded as torture.  For people living alone in the UK, leaving their home for only an hour’s exercise a day for months on end, government mandated isolation is, on this definition, torture.  No wonder that so many people are breaking “the Rules”.  They go against the very nature of what it is to be human.

People like me are at least confined with my partner.  We are both surprised and delighted to discover that we still enjoy each other’s company after so long thrown closer together than we have been for most of our married life.  For many people, though, a single connection cannot replace the need for wider connections.  Sadly, in many cases, it is the escape that social connections allow, and the social sanctions on bad behaviour, that keep spousal abuse in check.  Without those wider social connections, refuges are finding themselves running out of bed-space even faster than ICUs.

Even within a couple, connections need to be nurtured.  Simply hugging is an important way to remain connected.  That kind of contact is critical between lovers and between parents and children.  The ban on direct physical contact between elderly people in care homes and their relatives is doing terrible damage.  The anecdotal accounts of rapid mental decline ( especially of those with Alzheimer’s ) are convincing and it seems likely that many elderly people deprived of physical connection with loved ones face physical decline as well.

Connections matter. If we truly valued mental health as much as physical health, we would make a more careful balance between the two when coping with diseases like Covid.

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